Our society is ill-equipped to handle two of the greatest opportunities and challenges of our lifetime: increasing longevity and climate change. What if local communities, aided by larger institutions such as AARP and the World Health Organization (WHO), focused on addressing these issues simultaneously? The recent momentum around creating age-friendly communities is encouraging—there are more than 600 communities covering nearly 100 million people in the U.S.—but that is not sufficient. We must also ensure communities lessen the impact of and are resilient to climate change.
age-friendly, eco-friendly, housing, resilient, climate change, transportation
Our society has the dual challenges of a built environment neither designed for older people nor optimized for minimizing climate impact. The opportunity ahead is to solve both challenges simultaneously by supercharging the age-friendly movement with a greater focus on age-friendly, environmentally friendly housing resilient to climate change. By creating communities that are built to last, we help not just current generations of older adults, but the multitudes to follow.
While the desires and needs of Baby Boomers command much of our attention, the more significant headline is that more and more people in younger generations will be living to ages 100 and beyond (see Wang et al., in this issue). Our housing and communities should be designed with this reality in mind.
As a real estate developer and advisor to real estate developers, I see a valuable opportunity to rise to this challenge by developing communities that appeal to the needs and desires of older adults and incorporate design that is eco-friendly and climate change resilient. As a concerned citizen, I know this challenge is urgent.
Place—broadly defined to include country, region, state, metropolitan area, neighborhood, nearby streets, and physical dwelling—matters significantly to personal and societal well-being. It has an indirect and direct impact on health. The best place elevates purpose, social connection, physical well-being, and financial well-being. Place can be designed to support our needs as we age and help insulate us from the perils of climate change. Place is foundational for any societal and individual strategy for thriving over a long life (Finkelstein, Gentzkow, & Williams, 2021).
For many, however, this foundation is weak. There are affordability issues, made worse with the recent run up in the cost of housing sparked by the pandemic. There are individual mindset hurdles, in particular the headstrong conviction of many who wish to “age in place.” About 75% of older people in the United States prefer to live in their existing home for as long as possible; hopefully forever. For most older adults in America, this means a single-family house in the suburbs and could ultimately translate to living in one home for decades. Unfortunately, as situations evolve and individuals’ needs change, it becomes increasingly likely that one’s current home is not the best place for now. A dogmatic determination to age in place blinds one to the attractive possibilities of aging in a better place.
Most significantly, there are supply challenges. We have not designed our society to thrive across a longer lifespan. Much existing housing and built environment was created as though its inhabitants will remain young forever. Only about 4% of all housing stock in the United States is suitable for people with moderate mobility difficulties. Inadequate housing design for older adults, particularly in bathrooms, is one of the reasons that a third of older adults fall each year, which can lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations, costing billions of dollars annually (Bipartisan Policy Center, 2016).
The challenges also extend to housing location. Too much housing requires transportation to get to services and a lack of density makes it inefficient for services to come to the home. Social disconnectedness is rising and often housing doesn’t help. Today, about half of older adults don’t know any of their neighbors.
In response to these deficiencies, the World Health Organization (WHO) is leading a global effort to create age-friendly communities. This laudable project—led by AARP in the United States—is making important strides. Today, the WHO Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities includes 1,333 cities and communities in 47 countries, covering more than 298 million people worldwide.
‘A dogmatic determination to age in place blinds one to the attractive possibilities of aging in a better place.’
In the United States, nearly 100 million individuals—or close to a third of the total population—lives in a town, city, county, territory, or state that has enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Leaders in these municipalities commit to a process to create a robust plan to make their communities age-friendly for all citizens. The WHO framework encompasses eight domains: community and healthcare, transportation, housing, social participation, outdoor spaces and buildings, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, and communication and information (WHO, 2022).
Housing Should Reflect Healthcare-at-Home Trend
But there is more to be done. The effort to make communities more age-friendly should lean more heavily on substantive housing development that works for people of all ages. Some efforts focus on making more older adult living options available. While this can be incrementally helpful, such housing can perpetuate “age apartheid,” says Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org and author of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. Intergenerational relationships benefit the young and older adults and 90% of people believe that intergenerational activities help reduce loneliness across all ages (Generations United and The Eisner Foundation, 2018).
Local governments and municipalities should consider incentives or mandates that incorporate universal design principles (slip resistant tiles, blocking for grab bars, and easy lever hardware) into the design of all housing units. It is much easier to create places that are built to last rather than aim to retrofit down the road. These entities also can create marketing visibility for age-friendly communities, such as the use of an age-friendly stamp of approval. Or, akin to the LEED certification process for environmentally friendly design, an entity could create a certification process to verify that a housing community is age-friendly.
Real estate developers should be educated on the business case for making housing developments age-friendly. Some of the benefits are obvious. While new apartment buildings in urban environments tend to target young people, projects are less risky if they appeal to a broader age range. Moreover, older adults tend to stay in place longer than younger adults. The collective cost of lost vacancy, unit renovations, and marketing spend to refill a unit can be substantial.
In short, creating an age-friendly community should make any housing development less risky to fill and maintain occupancy. These benefits should more than outweigh the development and operational costs to make housing communities age-friendly.
The design of age-friendly housing developments should also reflect a fundamental shift in the healthcare system away from institutions and toward home. In a trend that accelerated during the pandemic, homes are becoming health hubs. Technology and healthcare services in the community are making the home a viable alternative to the hospital and post-acute care settings. Some insurers and health providers offer 24–7 telehealth support, remote patient monitoring, and home health equipment. Healthcare and care services, such as personal care and companionship, private duty nursing care, and home healthcare, are available in many communities.
People with complex, acute health conditions can now be taken care of at home. The implications for housing developers are that housing units must have the technological capabilities to support this shift and also have an operating philosophy to support people as they age. If not, housing units will not be as age-friendly as they could and should be.
Build Up Not Out
Policy plays an important role in creating more age-friendly supply. One key lever is allowing for greater housing density. Minneapolis has been a leader in this area in the United States. In 2019, after a prolonged process, the city changed its land policies to include more diverse housing options. Previously, 70% of residential zoning only allowed single-family homes. To create a more diversified mix of housing options, the building code was changed to allow for “middle housing,” like duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes. Since this change, Oregon and other states have altered their land-use policies, with other areas likely to follow.
While much can be done to improve and accelerate the adoption of age-friendly communities, an essential but missing step is to account for climate change as an integrated part of the age-friendly process.
Creating an age-friendly community should make any housing development less risky to fill and maintain occupancy.
There are some key elements of age-friendly design that overlap naturally with considerations for the environment. Consider walkability, for example. Creating housing density around amenities, such as parks, restaurants, and grocery stores, makes it feasible for residents of all ages to access key services without the use of a car. Creating housing density also facilitates social connection with people nearby. At the same time, it is better for the environment as it reduces vehicle emissions and the need to build out and maintain more expansive road infrastructure.
The concept of a 20-minute neighborhood illustrates an approach that is both age- and eco-friendly. It is anchored on the idea that most of what’s needed for life should exist within a 20-minute public transportation trip, bike ride, or walk from home. This includes shopping, business services, education, community facilities, recreational and sporting resources, and jobs. It’s about helping people live locally. Melbourne, Australia, and Singapore feature the 20-minute neighborhood in their development plans (Hanyan, 2021). I have developed an age-friendly apartment building in a dense suburb of Washington, D.C., and can attest to the benefits observed by residents and the net positive impact to the environment.
An age-friendly process that integrates climate considerations would outline environmental impacts explicitly. Developments should be evaluated through a comprehensive lens of climate impacts, considering building materials, design, and accessibility. Eco-friendly building materials, such as recycled steel, can reduce climate impact. Clever design elements can efficiently allocate square footage, lessening climate impact and lowering cost. Importantly, design can focus on ongoing climate impact through the use of heat and cooling systems and water usage. Examples include use of solar panels, electric batteries to capture excess energy, energy efficient windows, water retention systems and more. Easy accessibility to amenities and services is a key element as well. Walkability and bikeability allows residents to be active as well as reduce the need for using and owning a car.
An age-friendly assessment should carefully consider resilience to climate change. Tragically, some places are not set up well for people to thrive due to climate change. Rising water levels put coastal communities at risk, increasing temperatures may make certain arid climates unbearable, drought has extended fire season in much of the American West, and the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, may make certain places too hazardous to live. For such places, there may be not a viable path for climate resilience.
For the vast majority of locations, however, careful planning can help a community thrive despite the negative impact of climate change. Examples may include creating more green space to improve air quality, implementing measures, such as green roofs, to reduce temperatures in urban areas and implementing traffic congestion strategies to reduce vehicle gridlock and use. It also may mean creating measures to minimize flood risk and infrastructure to buffer against rising water levels.
Leaving a Positive Legacy
Ultimately, as a society and as individuals, we will be defined by our legacy. How did we positively impact the generations following us? Policy makers and government officials should focus on encouraging age-friendly housing developments that are also eco-friendly and resilient to climate change.
Real estate developers and capital providers should embrace the investment opportunity to fuel this change. Healthcare leaders should help drive the reframing of home as the foundation for health and healthcare.
Each of us bears some responsibility. As more housing options emerge beyond existing single-family houses, we need to evaluate whether we are in the right place at the right time for our needs, our loved one’s needs, and those of Mother Nature. In most cases, this will require a re-evaluation of the default plan of “aging in place,” as well as a more rigorous assessment of our individual climate footprint. If we want a society that is built to last, each of us plays a critical role.
Ryan Frederick, MBA, is the CEO of SmartLiving 360, an Austin, Texas–based strategy consulting and real estate development firm focused on the intersection of successful aging and the built environment. He is the author of Right Place, Right Time: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Home for the Second Half of Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). He is an Encore Public Voices Fellow, a Nexus Insights Fellow and National Advisory Board Member for Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.
Photo: Vertical forest apartments in Milan.
Photo credit: Libero_Monterisi
Bipartisan Policy Center. (2016). Healthy Aging Begins at Home. https://bipartisanpolicy.org/download/?file=/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/BPC-Healthy-Aging.pdf
Finkelstein, A., Gentzkow, M., & Williams, H. (2021). Place-Based Drivers of Mortality: Evidence from Migration. American Economic Review, 111(8), 2697–735. www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20190825
Generations United and The Eisner Foundation. (2018). All In Together: Creating Places Where Young and Old Thrive. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from www.gu.org/app/uploads/2018/06/SignatureReport-Eisner-All-In -Together.pdf.
Hanyan, S. (2021). 20-minute Towns. ULI Singapore. https://singapore.uli.org/20-minute-towns/.
World Health Organization. (2022). Age-friendly World. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://extranet.who.int/agefriendlyworld/age-friendly-cities-framework/#:~:text=The%20WHO%20Age%2Dfriendly%20Cities%20framework%20developed%20in%20the%20Global,and%20interact%20with%20each%20other.